War Stories

Written To Fail

Why the U.N.’s Lebanon resolution is already collapsing.

U.N. Peacekeeper. Click image to expand.
U.N. peacekeeper

An early lesson learned by anyone who’s studied the United Nations: Don’t make great claims for a Security Council resolution until you read the fine print. This is particularly true of resolutions that pass unanimously: They often lack the bite that might have aroused opposition—it’s in the fine print that the teeth get pulled or blunted.

So, there’s much lament but no surprise that Security Council Resolution 1701—which called for a cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon—seems to be unraveling a mere week after its widely hailed 13-0 passage. Over the weekend, Israel launched a commando raid—complete with ground troops, jet fighters, and helicopters—on a Hezbollah stronghold in Boudai, 60 miles north of the Lebanese border.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denounced the raid as a “flagrant violation” of the cease-fire resolution. Israeli officials defended the raid as a permissible act of self-defense, saying they were disrupting arms shipments from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah—shipments that the resolution clearly forbids. Today’s New York Times quotes a “senior Israeli commander” saying that Israel would continue to seek out and block such shipments.

Which side is violating the resolution? At least in spirit, both are. But the resolution was worded so ambiguously that both combatants, Israel and Hezbollah, could approve its language, knowing it would allow them to continue their skirmishes.

Let’s take a look. Paragraph One of the resolution calls for:

a full cessation of hostilities based upon, in particular, the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive operations. [Italics added.]

These resolutions aren’t written carelessly. There was a reason Hezbollah was barred from carrying out “attacks,” while Israel was barred only from launching “offensive operations.”

At his Aug. 14 press conference, President Bush was asked about the distinction. He replied:

If somebody shoots at an Israeli soldier, tries to kill a soldier from Israel, then Israel has the right to defend herself. She has a right to try to suppress that kind of fire. And that’s how I read the resolution.

The Israelis, however, read the resolution differently. In their interpretation, an attack on Hezbollah weapons is, by definition, a defensive operation. Or, even if it’s not, Paragraph Eight of the resolution requires “the full disarmament” of Hezbollah and bans the “sales or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its government.” As long as Hezbollah and its regional allies continue to violate the resolution, Israeli officials refuse to be bound by its terms unilaterally.

One problem, though, is that the resolution lacks a mechanism—or even clear language—for enforcing these restrictions. Paragraph One’s ambiguous language favors Israel’s interest. Several other paragraphs favor Hezbollah’s.

At last week’s press conference, President Bush was asked how the Lebanese army or U.N. peacekeepers hoped to keep Syria and Iran from shipping arms to Hezbollah. Bush replied: “Part of the mandate in the U.N. resolution was to secure Syria’s borders” and “to help seal off the ports around Lebanon.”

Not quite. Paragraph 14 “calls upon” the Lebanese government “to secure its borders and other entry points” to prevent the unauthorized entry of “arms or related materiel.” However, there is scant authority for the U.N.’s international peacekeeping force to help in this task.

Paragraph Two calls on the Lebanese government and the U.N. peacekeepers “to deploy their forces throughout the South” of Lebanon. Paragraph Eight delineates this zone as lying between the Israeli border and the Litani River and states that government soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers are to be “deployed in this area.” Paragraph 11 states that U.N. forces will “accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the South.” Paragraph 12 authorizes this U.N. force “to take all necessary actions in [its] area of deployment and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile actions of any kind.” [Italics added.]

The point is clear: The U.N. forces are explicitly authorized to monitor and enforce the cease-fire only south of the Litani River. Syria’s border with Lebanon extends well north of that point.

There is one loophole for a possible expansion of this mandate. Paragraph 14, the one that calls on the Lebanese government to secure its borders, notes that the U.N. force “may assist” in this task at the Lebanese government’s “request.”

However, the loophole is very small. U.N. commanders have learned, through decades of peacekeeping missions, to stay well within their mandates. (At the moment, several nations that had pledged to contribute forces to the mission in Lebanon are having second thoughts precisely because its mandate is unclear.) Paragraph 14 does not explicitly expand the U.N. force’s “area of operations” in the event of such a request. There is also the matter of Paragraph 12, which authorizes the U.N. force to take actions “as it deems within its capabilities.” The resolution specifies that the U.N. force shall consist of “a maximum of 15,000 troops.” That figure reflects a calculation of how many troops are needed simply to secure the area between the Israeli border and the Litani River. Guarding the border, stopping and inspecting suspicious shipments, confiscating illegal arms, and possibly fighting the people transporting or receiving them—such tasks go well beyond the resolution’s mandates.

A cease-fire isn’t a hopeless goal, nor is Resolution 1701 quite dead in the water. Paragraph 10 requires Secretary-General Kofi Annan “to develop, in liaison with relevant international actors and the concerned parties, proposals to implement” the resolution’s terms, and to submit these ideas to the Security Council within 30 days.

Still, it must be recognized that the resolution’s loose ends and ambiguities stem not from errors, which could be corrected, but rather from a calculation of what all the parties involved would accept. Unless those parties are compelled or coaxed to change their minds, not even the shrewdest draftsman could transform a leaky U.N. resolution into watertight law.